The Germans Invade Gaul – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 30 Part 2

frozen-river-rhine-barbarians

While the invasion by Alaric threw Italy into a crisis, Germany was in turmoil.  There was increasing pressure from the Huns in the East – Gibbon traces its origin all the way back to China, which is probably fanciful but I suppose isn’t impossible.  From this emerged a new barbarian leader who rapidly became an enemy of Rome.  Alaric was a Christian who understood the empire intimately.  In contrast the new leader was an out and out barbarian. His name was Radagaisus and he was not just a pagan, but a sincere one who regularly sacrificed to his gods. He treated the civilised world with contempt rather than envy.  It was widely believed that he had taken a vow to reduce the city of Rome to rubble and to sacrifice the senators to his heavenly supporters.  

He probably led about 20,000 warriors from a mixture of tribes.  There doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of military finesse about his approach.  He crossed the undefended border, then marched across the equally undefended river Po and laid siege to Florence. This would have been pretty much motivated by the desire for booty rather than any grand plan.

The inhabitants of the besieged city were fighting for their lives, and there was no avenue open for negotiation.  Stilicho raised, with some difficulty, some 40,000 troops.  He tempted back deserters.  He offered freedom and 2 pieces of gold to slaves who would join him.  What the slave’s owners thought about that isn’t recorded.  He again pulled all the northern provincial forces he could summon back to deal with the crisis in Italy.

Meanwhile the inhabitants of Florence were reduced to their last strength.  They kept going with encouragement from St Ambrose.  He was of course, still dead, but he sent hopeful messages in dreams.  Ambrose may not have been alive but he was luckily well informed.  One day the defenders looked out to see the banners of Stilicho in the distance.  It was now the barbarians turn to be besieged as Stilicho surrounded their camp.  In they end they surrendered.  Radagaisus was held for a while and then executed.  10,000 of his followers were recruited into the Roman army and the rest of the captives sold into slavery.  The numbers involved were so great that the sudden sale collapsed the market for slaves, and most of them went for really good prices.  Not every purchaser got a bargain though.  A lot of them were malnourished and died shortly afterwards.  And those that ended up in Rome itself may well have been something their owners would have been better off without, as we shall see a bit later.

So dangerous as it was the invasion of Italy by Radagaisus did have some beneficial effects.  It cemented the reputation of Stilicho as the saviour of Italy.  He emerged from the conflict stronger and now with a reasonable sized army under his control. He had also developed further the technique had already been using against Alaric of building walls, ditches and fortifications to hamper the movement of the barbarians and to trap them where they could be dealt with.  This wasn’t by any means a new technique.  Caesar had used it to good effect and described it in detail in his campaign journals. It is an obvious enough solution to fighting highly mobile forces that are hard to make contact with. The British would be using the same tactics against the Boers in the late nineteenth century. It was a strategy particularly well suited to the situation in Italy in the fifth century where the empire still had plenty of muscle power but was short of trained fighting men.  Stilicho’s priority was preserving his army, which was the last one the empire had.  He was getting good at doing exactly that. But for all his virtues, he could not save Gaul.

The winter of 406/407 marked the end of Roman rule in Gaul in any meaningful sense.  The survivors of the army of Radagaisus moved up to Gaul, and large numbers of other German tribesmen crossed the frozen river Rhine to pour into the undefended provinces.  Cities were destroyed.  Citizens were enslaved.  Order broke down.  These were folk movements rather than military invasions.  The locals were not necessarily  butchered – they might be enslaved or even just chased away.  A poet even records being paid for his farm by its new occupier, albeit a derisive sum. Some people will pay for a clean conscience. The invaders were looking for somewhere to live rather than spoil and plunder.  It is quite likely that it was the speed of the breakdown of the imperial system that gave the Germans a unique opportunity.  With more warning the Gauls could have organised a resistance and would quite likely have succeeded.  The depletion of the frontier troops was a temporary expedient to respond to a particular crisis and there would have been every expectation that they would soon be back.

But as it was, the map of the Roman world had been changed forever.  The southern provinces of Gaul were now occupied by large numbers of German warriors who would not give up what they had taken lightly.  The Roman presence in Germany – which had depended on the support of the frontier was also swept away.  The decline of the power of the empire was now visible to anyone who chose to observe it.

One point I should make is that given in fact had no evidence from the sources that the Rhine was frozen when the Barbarians crossed it. He covers himself by the use of the word probably. But it is such a powerful image that later writers have recycled it. Many have done as I have done and simply quoted it as a fact. It doesn’t seem to me at all unreasonable to imagine that is exactly what happened. After all there isn’t much else to be said for December as a month to travel in, unless you want to take advantage of the frozen water.

I tried to find out what the climate of that’s part of Europe would’ve been in the fifth century. To my surprise it turns out that we don’t really have any very good idea of it. But maybe I was on the wrong track anyway. If the Rhine froze on a regular basis that wouldn’t necessarily mean very much. The crucial factor was that the troops were no longer there.

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